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U.S. astronaut Jeff Williams safely landed back on Earth on Tuesday night after setting a new record for the most time spent in space by an American.
The NASA astronaut, along with Oleg Skripochka and Alexey Ovchinin of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, departed from the International Space Station at 5:51 p.m. ET and touched down three hours later on the steppe of Kazakhstan aboard Russia's Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft.
At the point of their landing, at 9:13 p.m. ET, Williams had added 172 days to his four-spaceflight career, bringing his total time off the planet to 534 days, 2 hours and 48 minutes. The previous record holder, Scott Kelly, logged a three-flight total of 520 days, 10 hours and 30 minutes in March.
Landing about 90 miles southeast of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan, the trio were met by Russian recovery team members, who helped them out of their capsule and into chairs to begin their readjustment to gravity.
The crew's trip home marked the official end of the space station's Expedition 48 and the start of Expedition 49.
"We've enjoyed a great stay up here over the last almost six months," Williams said during a change of command ceremony Monday. "We especially enjoyed our stay with the entire crew of Expedition 48."
"I appreciate, Jeff, your efforts as the station's commander. You really did much to ensure success of the expedition," said Anatoly Ivanishin, commander of Expedition 49.
In addition to Ivanishin, remaining on the orbital laboratory are astronauts Kate Rubins of NASA and Takuya Onishi of JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency). Three more Expedition 49 crewmates are scheduled to launch on Sept. 23.
Cosmonauts Andrey Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhikov, together with NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, will arrive on board Soyuz MS-02 — the second of Russia's new line of upgraded spacecraft.
Williams, Skripochka and Ovchinin arrived at the station on March 18. During their 172 days in orbit, the astronaut and two cosmonauts conducted hundreds of experiments and technology demonstrations, highlighted by the deployment of the first human-rated expandable habitat, the BEAM or Bigelow Expandable Activity Module.
They also helped with the arrival of several resupply ships, including SpaceX's Dragon capsule, Orbital ATK's Cygnus resupply freighter and Russian Progress capsules.
"This is a very significant time, in my opinion, in the life of the space station," Williams said. "Going into the full utilization mode — being that orbiting laboratory that we've always said it was going to be — and just broadening what is going on here on station in ways that I hoped for, and for a period of time, I have to confess, I wondered if we were going to see it to fruition."
"Now I am confident we are going to see the exploitation of the International Space Station and take full advantage of the opportunities that it gives for all humankind on Earth."